If the name of this new CD by guitarist Richard Nelson and Boston's intrepid Aardvark Jazz Orchestra sounds familiar, that's because it is the same as a spiritual of unknown origin that has been sung for perhaps hundreds of years in churches and other venues and recorded a number of times in films, once by the legendary singer / actor Paul Robeson. What is less customary is composer / arranger Nelson's progressive approach to the music of days gone by on his incisive six-movement Deep River Suite, a precept that is readily absorbed and capably performed by music director Mark Harvey's AJO. Instead of lingering in the past, Nelson has taken themes rooted in tradition and renovated them for the ears of twenty-first century listeners, an enterprise in which Aardvark is well-pleased to take part.
Four of the suite's half-dozen movements have been adapted from traditional themes; the others ("Transit," "Rite of Passage") are originals by Nelson that bridge the divide between traditional and modern. All were recorded live at Colby College in Waterville, Maine (with the audience rendered barely audible by the recording engineer). Among the musical devices that were no doubt foreign to those in earlier times are trendy ensemble passages and emphatically un-canonical solos by trumpeter Mark Tipton and trombonist Bob Pilkington on the swinging "Wake Up Jacob" and hip scat-singing by Timothy Johnson on "Old Country Stomp." Johnson, a superb craftsman, teams with the equally talented Marcia Gallagher on "Rite of Passage" and the album's long-running finale, "Make Me a Pallet on Your Floor," while Gallagher is out front by herself on the heavy-hearted "Deep River Blues."
"Pallet," with its shifting moods, time signatures and playing time of more than sixteen minutes, almost qualifies as a suite in itself. Phil Scarff's expressive soprano sax underscores its wistful prologue, a spirit carried forward by Nelson and bassist John Funkhouser before the ballad becomes a shuffle and Gallagher and Thompson implant the tasteful lyric. They return after perceptive solos by Nelson and alto Arni Cheatham to usher the theme to its crowd-pleasing conclusion. This time, the audience is heard. The suite's second movement, "Transit," is adeptly introduced by tubaist Bill Lowe and further animated by Peter Bloom's lively piccolo, a framework that leads to Thompson's spirited vocal (and scat) on the irrepressible "Old Country Stomp."
Having drawn his inspiration from spirituals, folk songs and other anthems from bygone eras, Nelson has succeeded well in analyzing and reshaping their basic elements to suit the forward-looking Aardvark Jazz Orchestra. As a result, his panoramic Deep River Suite should please those who cherish the past as well as those who embrace the present and future.
Deep River Blues; Transit; Old Country Stomp; Wake Up Jacob; Rite of Passage; Make Me a Pallet on Your Floor.
Richard Nelson: composer, arranger, guitar; Mark Harvey: music director, conductor; K.C.
Dunbar: trumpet; Jeanne Snodgrass: trumpet; Mark Tipton: trumpet; Arni Cheatham: alto sax, flute; Peter Bloom: alto sax, flute, piccolo; Phil Scarff: tenor, soprano sax, clarinet; Chris Rakowski: tenor sax, clarinet; Dan Zupan: baritone sax, bass clarinet; Bob Pilkington: trombone; Jay Keyser: trombone; Jeff Marsanskis: trombone; Bill Lowe: bass trombone, tuba; John Funkhouser: bass; Harry Wellott: drums; Marcia Gallagher: vocals; Timothy Johnson: vocals.
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